In this episode, philosopher J.P. Moreland shares honestly about his experience with severe anxiety, and the spiritual practices that helped him receive receive God’s peace.
Q: I’m really interested to know how a philosophy professor ends up writing a book on anxiety and depression.
I approach philosophy as an attempt to learn how to live a wise and flourishing life that honors Christ. I was born with a problem with anxiety that led me to wanting to continue to develop my emotional health and spiritual health. I was born with a genetic disposition towards anxiety from my mom’s side, and as a little boy I also observed her worry and be anxious a lot. So by the time I got out of high school, and was well-taught and predisposed to being an anxious person. In 2003 I had an unbelievably stressful year at university. I had panic attacks and had what I could call a nervous breakdown that lasted 7 months. I got on medications, got into good Christian therapy, and began to practice some things that I’ve learned from Dallas Willard. After 7 months I got better. But then it happened again for 5 months. So I devoted myself to learning about anxiety and coming up with a list of practices that would help me.
Q: The other thing you do that I found really helpful is that you help address a lot of concerns that Christians might have about mental health or medication or self-compassion. Have you found that to be well-received or have you gotten pushback from that?
I did get some pushback. I was actually preaching at a church and I talked about the importance of medication for those who need it, and I was not allowed to speak at the second service and was never invited back. They were pretty upset with me. The Bible itself emphasizes the importance of non-biblical knowledge. If something in psychology contradicts the Bible, then I don’t accept it. But if the Bible doesn’t speak about it, then I’m free to follow the evidence wherever it goes. Psychology and psychiatry have a tremendous amount to offer us in our tool bag.
Q: One of the pieces that I found really helpful in the book is you continue to go back to all these practices and very practical things that have worked for you, yet leaving it open for not being totally prescriptive for people. I’m curious to hear a little about your journey with contemplative prayer and how that has helped you with anxiety.
It’s been life changing. I needed to learn how to attach to God. This form of prayer has opened me up to attaching and connecting and experiencing the presence of God with more intensity than I had before. It has drawn me closer to the Lord. Contemplative prayer has a lot of different ways of doing it. The bottom line for me was finding a way to sit in the same place every morning and be quiet and to learn how to focus my attention by the use of some repetitive phrase. I want to get in a position of receptivity where I’m open to being guided or connected.
Q: could you say a little about the four-step solution process?
It is one way of dealing with the kinds of negative self-talk that we are habituated to that tears us down and makes us afraid and depressed. It was generated by Jeffrey Schwarz. It’s a way of re-training your self-talk. The first step is that you invite the Spirit to search you and help you notice when you’re doing this. Step 2 is to label it (there are 10 typical thought disorders), to name it, which takes the power out of it. Step 3 is refocusing, where you turn your mind away from it, and go to something that gets you into what’s called flow. Step 4 is evaluate how you did in handling it. After 2 – 3 months of doing this daily, those grooves that automatically trigger anxiety are replaced with triggers that automatically cause feelings of joy and peace.
Q: How did your friendship with Dallas inform your writing.
He was my main professor and my dissertation supervisor. Part of his influence was realizing that it is actually possible to make tremendous progress in this journey. He really lived this, and that attractiveness of his heart and life drew me in, motivated me to dive in a learn a new era of the Christian life that I had not been taught before.
Q: It reads like formation work applied to mental health challenges. What was it like to crash for all those months?
It was terrorizing. What I learned quickly was that my typical approach to the Christian life was not adequate to deal with it. I felt like I was letting people down.
Q: Are you healed?
I haven’t come close to having mild anxiety in 5 or 6 years, and it’s been 8 years since the breakdown. In 2015 and for the next 2 ½ years I had 8 surgeries – one was life threatening for sure. I had chemo and 2 rounds of radiation, and I went through that whole time filled with joy and peace. And that’s because I was reaping what I had sown for years in these practices. They worked; they actually re-formed my character to where the natural thing for me to do was respond in a trusting manner. Cast your anxiety on the Lord and he’ll care for you, and the peace of Christ which surpasses understanding will guard your hearts and minds – those are not so much promises as ideals that you strive to achieve through practices and through praying through things. After a while, those texts become effective because you have developed the habituation that makes them a part of what you’ve now become.
Q: How important were Biblical passages for you?
The first appendix in Finding Quiet is a list of verses that are solid gold. Dallas told me that as, or more important, than getting in the Word and reading it, is to commit a handful of verses to memory that are there and you love them, they just do something for you, and make those the rails on which you run your life. As I began contemplative prayer, I would begin to quietly pray through a few of those and orient myself to contemplative prayer sessions with these verses. Pick a list of 4 or 5. I would try to express them emotionally to God, rather than cognitively reciting them.
Q: What would you say to someone listening who is really struggling with anxiety and maybe has some self-condemnation or shame?
Remember that Peter says that there are brothers and sisters all over the world who are going through the same things and that you’re not alone. This is an epidemic, so you’re not unusual. If this is a hard thing to handle, why not go to a Christian therapist and get some Christian counselling; go to a psychiatrist (rather than a GP) and consider getting a little help with meds until you get over the hump. And begin sharing what you’re experiencing with trusted people so that you have a place to share it to get it off your chest. And then begin some of these simple practices. Guilt and shame is not needed. I don’t think Christians should ever feel guilt or shame because of Romans 8:1 that says there is no condemnation and Colossians says that what we’ve done, our certificate of debt, was nailed to the cross. We should feel something else, and that is godly sorrow. The difference is that shame and guilt and self-oriented and self-condemnatory and puts me down. Godly sorrow is a form of sadness that draws me toward the Lord where I can acknowledge things and agree with God. It moves me toward the Lord and creates a hunger to conform to the way he is and continue on the journey rather than beating myself up.
Q: For folks who have friends and family, spouses, that are struggling with anxiety, is there a word you might have for the best way they can love each other through this?
The first thing is to be present to your loved one and give them opportunities to share and talk. And without you initially trying to fix it. Just be a presence and listen, even if you’ve heard it every day for 20 days now. That’s going to give a feeling of support. Be careful to preserve your own boundaries. You’re going to need time away and you just have to communicate that with them. You have to keep yourself from going down or you’re not going to be any good to anybody.
Q: How was your wife?
She was worried. She was just there for me and listened to me and supported me. I didn’t feel any condemnation on her part.